Caribana is more than ‘feathers, floats and flesh’


Caribana 2010 has come and gone leaving mostly wonderful memories captured on video recorders and cameras. The weather cooperated spectacularly to ensure that the fabulous costumes were showcased at their best. There were no showers or thunderstorms to ruin meticulously applied make-up and beautifully crafted costumes.

The more than one million visitors who came to Toronto to experience the largest Caribbean festival in North America were treated to a show which involves months of hard work of thousands of mostly Caribbean people and their Canadian-born children. A recent study and report verified what we have always known: the dedication of the transplanted Caribbean community to preserving and showcasing our heritage through the Caribana festival brings millions of tourist dollars to the Canadian economy. An Ipsos Reid study released in April 2010 verified that in 2009, Caribana brought approximately 1.2 million people to Ontario and contributed $483 million to the economy. In spite of its “cash cow” status Caribana continues to be treated as the unwanted relative or stranger.

Ajamu Nangwaya, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, put this in perspective when he wrote:

“It is very unsettling, yet not unexpected, that Caribana is being treated like a cultural outsider and a barbarian at the gate by the different levels of government.

Why is it that the largest festival in this country with the greatest economic impact is being treated as the cultural Cinderella within the family of Canadian festivals? The Calgary Stampede is normally regarded as the largest “Canadian” festival, but its economic impact is merely $173 million versus the $438 million generated by Caribana over a two-week period. It is difficult for a reasonable person to not see race and culture mediating how government funding is distributing grants to certain cultural projects.

While the federal government’s Marquee Tourism Events Program gave the Calgary Stampede, Carnaval de Quebec, and Stratford Shakespeare Festival $1,001,625, $1,449,435 and $3 million in grant funding, respectively, Caribana didn’t get a penny in 2010.”

Practically on the eve of this year’s Caribana it was announced by Joe Halstead, the outgoing chair of the Festival Management Committee, the city-established committee that now runs the two-week event, that the federal government’s Marquee Tourism Events Program and Ontario’s Celebrate Ontario were not contributing funds to Caribana this year. Even the annual Heritage Canada fund that has previously contributed $100,000 to Caribana gave a mere $40,000 this year leaving the organizers in the unfortunate position of having to cut back their budget from $2.6 million to $1.8 million to organize this festival that brought $438 million to Canada in 2009.

It is possible that we are being treated so shabbily by the people who make money off of our labour and talent because we try to please a society that does not value our culture and history but are very willing to exploit us. Observing the majority of costumes during the Caribana parade any visitor could be excused for thinking, as the headline of an article written by a White male blared, Caribana Delivers Feathers, Floats and Flesh. That is what visitors observe when they attend the Caribana parade. There are hardly any costumes which illustrate for our younger generation, journalists, visitors and those of us who do not know our history that Caribana, patterned after Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival, has a history which includes more than feathers, floats and flesh. The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey said: A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.

Jeff Henry, former senior professor and past chair of York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, shares some of that history in his book Under The Mas – Resistance and Rebellion in the Trinidad Masquerade. According to Henry, Trinidad’s Carnival was “Originally structured and developed during the years of enslavement and immediately thereafter, to deal with the social, political and economic circumstances of daily life.”

In his 2001 book, Rituals of Power and Rebellion: the Carnival Tradition in Trinidad and Tobago, 1763-1962, Professor Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool also writes about the history of Trinidad’s Carnival: The most intense activity of the Africans on Carnival days was the Cannes Bruleés (French for Burnt Canes), comprising songs, dances and stick fights. Cannes Bruleés had its genesis during slavery. Whenever a fire broke out in the cane fields, the slaves on the surrounding properties were rounded up and marched to the spot, to the accompaniment of horns and shells. The gangs were followed by the drivers cracking their whips and urging them, with cries and blows, to harvest the cane before it was burnt. This event became known as the Cannes Bruleés – later called Canboulay.

After emancipation, the slaves commemorated this event on 1st August, as a symbol of the change in their status. Later, the date was changed to midnight carnival Sunday. This was, in essence, the beginning of the Africans’ Kalenda or Carnival.”

The connection of Caribana to Emancipation Day is carefully omitted even though the Caribana parade is usually within the same week as Emancipation Day (August 1).

The National Library and Information System Authority (NALIS) of Trinidad and Tobago contains detailed information about the history of Carnival, its connection to the emancipation of enslaved Africans and the meaning of the costumes and themes of Carnival.

The organizers of Caribana should include in their media packages the history of Caribana and its connection to Carnival and the Emancipation of enslaved Africans. Journalists who cover Caribana need to read that history so that they, the politicians who regularly pop up at the parade and parade attendees will understand that Caribana is more than Feathers, Floats and Flesh. That might even encourage the band leaders and costume designers to go beyond the usual fare of bikinis, feathers and beads.

Maybe when all and sundry understand that with the masking, dancing, drumming etc., there is a connection to ancient African civilizations we may get a bit more respect.


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